Project Management Institute

Six steps to project recovery

by Richard W. Bailey II, PMP

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PROJECTS REQUIRE RECOVERY when undesirable variances against project baselines emerge or project controls fail. Developing a course of action to quickly restore project control is critical to preserving project value, maintaining stakeholder support, and improving team morale. To do this requires open and candid communication between stakeholders and the project team to properly identify problems, make recommendations, and restore project controls. Exhibit 1 illustrates the six steps to project recovery.

Recovery Intervention. Recognizing the need for intervention and the timing of the intervention are both critical elements in project recovery. If key stakeholders do not perceive a compelling need to intervene, they may not grant approval. The timing of intervention influences the recovery scope in that projects that begin recovery early generally require less effort and cost to recover than if recovery is delayed.

The key to timely recognition of project recovery needs is to establish project performance thresholds that are clear, preferably quantifiable, objective measures that, once crossed, trigger a project recovery. These thresholds should be clearly defined and communicated during the early stages of the project. By defining these thresholds and the associated corrective actions to take, a decision to intervene can often be reached quickly, as stakeholders have already agreed to the guidelines.

Unfortunately for many projects in industry, ranges of acceptable project variances against key baselines are not clearly identified and agreed to by the key project stakeholders at the time of project initiation or during project planning. In addition, specific actions and plans that provide the road map to bring the project back within acceptable performance are also not defined. As a result, unacceptable project variances or trends are not predicted or detected enough in advance to give the project team ample time to successfully manage undesirable project variances. Up-front determination of “intervention thresholds,” which define actions to be taken under specific conditions, helps to remove delays or roadblocks in the intervention decision process and subsequently shortens the project recovery duration.

Project Assessment Instruments

Project Scope

Scope defined? What is it? Is it agreed-to and realistic?

Exit criteria defined? How are they measured and reported?

Assumptions and constraints defined and validated regularly?

Business case defined and reviewed regularly?

Product description defined? What is it?

Major deliverables and milestones identified?

Work breakdown structure defined and maintained? What is it?

Scope changes managed? How?

Project Schedule

Project life cycle determined? What is it and is it in line with expectations? How is that determined?

How are schedule changes approved and managed?

Activity lists adequately maintained? How and how often?

Activity duration estimates maintained? How and how often? What is the basis for estimates? How are they validated?

Activity predecessors defined and updated? What are the critical tasks? How do resource constraints affect your schedule?

Activity date constraints defined?

Activity initiation and completion status updated? How and how often?

Resource assignments leveled? How often?

Are resource allocation requirements sustainable?

Schedule variances monitored and managed? How and how often?

Project Staffing

Roles and responsibilities identified and being followed?

Staffing and skill gaps identified? How and how often?

Plans to fill gaps developed? How and how often? Are they effective?

Project team morale good? How is it maintained?

Key personnel in place? How is that maintained?

Team building activities implemented? What are they? Are they effective?

Project Quality

Project management processes being followed? What are they? Are they working? How can they be improved?

Deliverable design approval process implemented? What is it? How does it align with the project contracting vehicles?

Deliverable “approvers” involved in design process? Who are they? How are they identified? Do they know their roles?

Deliverable success criteria defined? What are they? How are they measured and reported?

Level of rework monitored and communicated for improvement? How and how often? Is the amount of rework unacceptable? How is rework managed and controlled?

Project Cost

Costs determined? What are they and how were they created? What is the basis for estimates? How are they validated?

Cost management tools implemented? What are they?

Costs variances being monitored and managed? How and how often? How is progress communicated?

How are budget changes approved?

Project Risk

Risk management processes established? How are risks identified, quantified, and contained?

Scope risks identified and contained?

Costs risk identified and contained?

Schedule risks identified and contained?

Quality risks identified and contained?

Contracting risks identified and contained?

Communication risks identified and contained?

Staffing risks identified and contained?

Integration risks identified and contained?

What are the major opportunities? Are they being pursued?

Project Communications

Communications plan defined and being followed?

How is progress and variance monitored and communicated?

Project team status performed? How and how often?

Accurate and complete updates to the Project Management Office provided? How and how often?

Repository established? Being used to capture and recycle intellectual capital? How are items selected for capture?

Issues management system implemented? Effective?

Phase closure and initiation steps being properly performed?

Project Procurement

Vendor performance managed? How and how often? Effective?

Contracts managed? How and how often? What are frameworks and standards for procurement, selection, solicitation, and contract management? Effective?

Payment process managed? How and how often? Effective?

Deliverable specifications defined? By whom?

Vendor issues managed? How and how often? Effective?

Project Integration

Intra-project (inter-phase) dependencies defined and managed? What are they? How are they managed? What are the shared milestones and risks?

Inter-project dependencies defined and managed? What are they? How are they managed? What are the shared milestones and risks?

Project plans maintained? How and how often? What are the shared milestones and risks?

Project trade-offs understood, managed, and communicated?

These steps follow a “waterfall” approach—a recovery step is not initiated until the predecessor step has been completed. Initiating recovery steps without completing predecessor steps can result in further delays in restoring project control and greater unfavorable variances

Exhibit 1. These steps follow a “waterfall” approach—a recovery step is not initiated until the predecessor step has been completed. Initiating recovery steps without completing predecessor steps can result in further delays in restoring project control and greater unfavorable variances.

Recovery Assessment. The purpose of recovery assessment is to determine which project controls are in place and to develop an understanding of the causes for poor project performance. When key stakeholders perceive that a project isn't under control, or isn't producing expected results, an assessment of the project's health is conducted. For most organizations with established project management processes, regular project assessments are performed.

Use project assessment instruments to help focus the assessment effort and develop a perspective of what controls exist. Refer to the sidebar for assessment tools that are based on the project management knowledge areas defined in the Project Management Institute's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

Keys to performing project assessments include following best practice project management processes and employing consistency when conducting assessments, forming conclusions, and presenting the findings and recommendations. By analyzing the information collected during interviews and from reviewing the project results and documentation, project controls are assessed and gaps identified.

Reader Service Number 186

Projects contain highly integrated systems of processes, and as such, are difficult to control if root causes of problems are not properly identified and addressed. Causes of specific variances may occur in one area of a project early in its life cycle; however, the effects may not be experienced until later, perhaps in a different area of the project. For example, inadequate development of the work breakdown structure (WBS) will likely cause a future effect of an incorrectly developed schedule.

Pareto diagrams are useful tools for identifying causes. For identifying cause-and-effect relationships, consider using Ishikawa diagrams. Diagrams describing trees or circles of causality provide powerful aids for gaining a systemic understanding of how processes interrelate. By understanding the root causes, better recommendations can be developed for establishing and sustaining project control throughout the remainder of the project life cycle.

Common characteristics of troubled projects include:

Poor definition and management of scope, schedule, cost, and quality baselines

Inaccurate and untimely communication

Unrealistic resource allocation

Poor vendor performance and contract management

Poor identification and containment of risks

Poor understanding of intra-project and inter-project dependencies.

An experienced project manager should be selected to perform the assessment. In cases where organizations have established a Program Management Office, a PMO representative is often assigned to lead the effort. Outsourcing provides yet another option.

Also as part of the assessment, consider contractual obligations that might place constraints on recovery approaches being considered. It is vital that the contractual affairs of the project continue to be managed. For example, if specific individuals deemed critical to project recovery are contractually obligated to performing regular (nonrecovery) project work, attempt to negotiate contract modifications that permit these resources to perform recovery tasks.

Recovery Recommendations. During this step, recommendations are developed for restoring project control. Recovery recommendations are based on the results of the assessment. For each assessment finding, determine recommended recovery actions with specific success criteria, recovery owners, and due dates. Consider using a table to collect and present recommendations.

Common recommendations include establishing key performance baselines and management plans, and controlling variances properly. In addition, recommendations for delaying project execution may be made to prevent the project from moving forward without the proper controls established.

Be prepared for stakeholders and team members to resist recommendations that temporarily delay execution, as these recommendations will be perceived to slow the project down. However, it is crucial to demonstrate that the project will continue to fail in delivering expected results unless the recommendations are acted upon. If the sole goal is to restore project performance as quickly as possible, without addressing the root causes of the performance problems, project recovery may not be successful. If the root causes of unacceptable project performance are not discovered and properly addressed, it is unlikely that desired project performance can be sustained.

Openly and candidly communicate recommendations as soon as possible. Be clear about what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, and how long it will take. Getting approval to proceed with recovery must be gained quickly to keep the project from getting farther off track and to prevent team morale from worsening. Gaining quick endorsement of recommendations is more likely when the presentation is thoroughly prepared and tailored to the audience.

Recovery Planning. This step defines the road map for implementing the recovery recommendations, which in turn define the focus areas of the recovery planning efforts. Strive for a recovery life cycle that is as short as can be properly managed so that normal project execution can resume as soon possible.

Ensure that recovery closure points are clearly defined. Without recovery completion criteria, it will be difficult to determine when, and under what conditions, normal project execution can resume. Include a plan for how to transfer from recovery to normal project execution.

Recovery plans are part of the overall project plan and should encompass:

Recovery scope,WBS, and recovery exit criteria

Resource leveled recovery schedule

Staffing management

Cost baseline and management

Risk management

Recovery communication

Quality management

Contract and vendor management

Integration management.

Exhibit 2 provides an example WBS for recovery planning.

Consider integrating the recovery schedule with the overall project schedule to simplify identification of the dependencies between recovery and nonrecovery tasks. This approach yields the additional benefit of using the same resource pool for recovery and nonrecovery tasks.

Reader Service Number 054

This simple WBS describes the scope of project recovery

Exhibit 2. This simple WBS describes the scope of project recovery.

To gain commitment to the recovery plan, get the team involved in validating findings and recommendations. Incorporate team input on how to best perform recovery and get everyone working toward the same goal.

Recovery Execution. Follow the plan! Planning, executing, and controlling processes must be performed throughout the life of the recovery phase. Correctly executing project recovery requires a properly developed plan and a team capable of executing and controlling the plan. Resolving issues quickly and keeping the team focused are essential to optimally performing recovery execution.

Take steps to build team morale, which can wane, as recovery is often perceived as a step backward. Keep the stakeholders and team updated with timely and accurate information to facilitate team coordination and demonstrate that recovery is being performed as expected.

Key deliverables produced during Recovery Execution include updates of:

Scope,WBS, exit criteria, and scope management plan

Resource leveled schedule and management plan

Staffing management plan

Cost baseline and management plan

Risk management plan

Communication plan

Quality management plan

Contract and vendor management plans

Integration management plan.

Other key activities involve improving the project manager's capability and include reinforcing the project manager's roles and responsibilities, training him or her to better manage the remainder of the project, and reinforcing the accountability for failure to maintain project control.

Recovery Closure. Recovery closure facilitates the return to normal project operations and includes:

Establishing a regular project review cycle to continuously monitor project health

Defining escalation steps to follow if project controls are not maintained

Documenting the lessons learned during the project recovery process and discussing how to improve the project recovery life cycle

Collaborating on how to better plan, manage, and staff projects

Conducting a closure meeting to communicate to the stakeholders and team that the recovery completion criteria have been satisfied, that project control has been restored, and that normal project operations are resuming.

PROJECT RECOVERY IS ABOUT quickly restoring project control. Experienced resources and a proven project management approach are critical success factors in this effort. Make sure to establish, early in the project, performance baselines and thresholds and the associated corrective actions to be taken in the event that project recovery is required. ■

Richard W. Bailey II, PMP, is a program manager for a Fortune 200 company. He has also managed projects for IBM Global Services, Nestlé Foods, Boeing, American Electric Power, Bank One, Goodyear, Abbott Labs, Borden Foods, and Cap Gemini. While at IBM, he attained IBM project manager certification.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

May 2000 PM Network

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